Book Review: Love is the Higher Law

This was my second David Levithan book, and again I really liked it! And again it got a little effusive, but I easily forgave it because of the enjoyment I had while reading. Love is the Higher Law is about 9/11. Perhaps you inferred that from the cover. I don’t know about you, but this is only the second book I’ve read where the setting is 9/11. And to me that’s weird. I thought there would be more. Maybe there are more, but they aren’t getting buzz. Or maybe they aren’t good? Don’t know, but this book is very good.

Of the three voices/characters in this book, I related to Jasper as he slept through the event and found himself alone watching the news after the attacks happened. I had just finished my paper route in Half Moon Bay and had gotten the baby back to sleep when the attacks happened. My neighbor woke me up to watch the news. What’s weird is that baby will be 11 years old in the next couple weeks. She has no memory of that day in 2001, while it is still fresh in my mind.

I got to thinking about what she’ll know of September 11th and it’s probably a collage of images rolled together into series of videos on the Internet and set to some cheesy American pop song, which I guess does reflect some truth of moment. But, I think in this book Levithan does thing I love about contemporary novels best, which is tell a truth with a fiction. I admire the way the teens in this book respond to the event. I love that he chose to have all three characters just close enough to the event that if their lives change it’s because of their doing and not the terrorists.

I loved seeing the reactions to the events from a New York perspective. I think the way he used music and concerts specific to the time (especially U2 – hence the title) was heartfelt and interesting and something everyone relates to, which was the point–community and commonalities and an in-this-together camaraderie.

So, hats off to Levithan for preserving this truth for the young adults in my house and all over, and in the YA writer in me that wants to find these kinds of truths in my works.

Book Review: Wolves of Mercy Falls (Series)

So I’m not an urban fantasy book lover, but I do enjoy some great fantasy books like Melinda Lo’s Ash. I chose to read Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series (Shiver, Linger, and Forever) because I wanted to compare these books with the Twilight Saga. I wasn’t in the crowd that loved those books, and was looking for an alternative to recommend to people, namely  the young adults I live with.

As I generally do with series, I waited for all the books to come out so that I could read them all back to back, no waiting. This time I think I wish I would have bought them one at a time. I doubt I would I have finished the series. And I think I would have been more satisfied with having stopped after the first story was over. Shiver was the strongest of the books and I rather like the ideas I had in my head of where the story would go from there. When I read the other books, I felt the characters were left somewhat undone in my head. And I was left with afterthoughts of, “shit, are they going to be happy adults?” For some reason in these books I need a truly happy ending, not an they’re-grown-up-in-a-happy/sad-life-is-hard-but-managable way. Which is probably my problem for having false expectations rather than a problem of the author breaking promises. Shiver ended in that happy way I wanted (still some heartbreak to be had though), so that’s why I should’ve quit there. However, the Wolves of Mercy Falls was a good read as a series and if you’re looking for an alternative to the Twilight Saga or something to do after reading it because you have gotten your fill of Werewolves, than this will satisfy that hunger.

That being said, this book is way more science-based. Which I’ll take over magic any day. I think this was my favorite aspect. It towed a line of Sci-Fi, which worked for me as a someone grounded in my love of contemporary fiction and as person who is rational. I was at times difficult to buy into teenagers discovering the “cure” to werewolfism, especially in the last two book when the primary researcher was a former rock star. The sections introducing Cole into the wolf pack as depressed rock star in the mood to die were difficult, but I did find my way into sympathizing and being interested in his story with Isabel.

I also found the romance between Sam and Grace a little gushy and annoying, which is probably why I bought into the Cole/Isabel story lines. I’m always looking for a good romance within a story and I have two to choose from, I’ll pick teams. So it was fun to go back and forth between the romances, but I would have liked to see more development with Rachel and Olivia. I’m betting that was a bigger part of the story that was cut. Olivia disappears before we really get a chance to know her while Rachel is barely more than a cliche’d supporting character.

Much of the descriptions of characters were drawn from the thoughts of other characters. This bugged me. Grace was always saying or thinking how Sam was pensive and awkward and Sam was always saying or thinking how Grace was not very adept at reading people. And it began to feel like a writing crutch. Most of the writing  however was lyrical and soft and enjoyable. The quoting of German poets didn’t grab me, but it also didn’t frustrate me. I really wonder how young adults reading this would respond to it. I’m guessing adults are patient and willing to read those lines, but I suspect many teens skipped them.

The book designs were outstanding including font color inside to match the book covers. These books were wonderful to hold in my hands and are lovely on my shelves.

Conclusion: Didn’t love everything. Didn’t hate anything. Glad I read the series. Would recommend to avid urban fantasy lovers.

Book Review: Ten Miles Past Normal

I love slim books but this one just didn’t grab me the way I wished it would. I love the concept, and the writing was strong, but the emotion just didn’t resonate with me. I’ll be trying other books by this author. I wondered if the reason it didn’t grab me was because the protagonist is younger (14), but nah. I think I just wasn’t into her, particularly. Many young girls certainly will be.

I was really into the idea of a girl finding her newer self back at home — belonging — instead of the traditional independence found that you see in YA books all the time. And that was there: Janie learns to dig the idea of a having a Hootenanny in which her mom invites the entire community. She crushes on the unpopular but actually cool guy who hangs with his family. But bottom line: it was too innocent for YA. It felt like it just as much about not growing up too fast as it was “embracing a new you.” I’d give this to my 10 year old to read, not my 13 year old. And I’m not even sure she’d love it.

I LOVE this cover. The chapter titles were very fun and the author used some of my favorite quotes from poets, so it felt strange not love the story. So, we’ll see what else this author does! I think I’d like to hang out with her again.

Book Review: Boy Meets Boy

This was my first Levithan book. I really liked it.

On romance: Paul and Noah was charming and gooey, rich with the grand gestures that teens think are necessary, and maybe are necessary. It got pretty Hallmark Card there at the end but I can’t resist a good romantic ending. Sue me.

On character: Paul was sooo self-aware I teetered for a while on whether this was okay with me. But I bought in. Here’s why: The crux of the book is that here is this gay boy whose been accepted by his parents, by his teachers, by his friends, and who even has had boyfriends throughout his young life, and so has normal life problems like, Does Noah like me? What is love? Why is my best friend abandoning me for her boyfriend? And why can’t Tony’s parents accept him for who he is? If such a place exists, and I hope it does, then I can believe this character exists. I can imagine that gay teens need this book. Everyone needs this book–needs to know what kind of world should exist: one where a gay kid has pretty much the same problems as any other.

The minor characters could easily have slipped into caricatures and stereotypes: the new kid, the wounded ex, the tranny, the bitchy friend, the sheltered friend. But they didn’t. They were rounded characters who I cared about to the end.

On setting: Mostly the characters were the setting. We saw the homes of Paul and Noah and Tony. All of them were insights to the people who lived there and nothing more. We saw the school, a typical school physically: there were halls and lockers. But again the people were what made the community. And that was romantic for sure, every kind of gay having a place and a say. Levithan seemed to refuse to go anywhere darker than Paul’s ex cheating on him out of confusion. And the book worked for it.

It was an interesting world to join into and explore with Paul. I definitely want to read more of Levithan’s books.

Book Review: Nothing


The descriptions on the back of this book include blurbs from starred reviews. Those words are:

All the marks of a classic

I could leave it at that and it would be accurate.

I could compare this to Lord of the Flies. Also accurate.

Like Battle Royale? This book is for you.

I have never read a middle grade book and thought: Fuck. But that was my response to this book. It is simply a brutal look at finding meaning. A must read.

Book Review: A Curse Dark as Gold

This book was so rich with story that it took me twice the time to read it as usual.I almost gave up at 50 pages in, because either it was slow or I was sleepy, but I’m glad I kept on! I ended up really enjoying it!

I loved the author note at the back, which I read first. I knew this book was a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, so I was curious about why the author was fascinated with the story. She noted that the original story bothered her for its lack of justice: the greedy father and tyrant king go unpunished while the miller daughter betrays the creature who helped her by magic. Further, she writes that the heroine has no name in a tale about the importance of names.

I’m glad I read her ideas about the original story first because I immediately loved the heroine, knowing she was out to do what was right and just. The character names were used to their fullest. And, the story used magic for a defined purpose. It all wove together beautifully, as I would expect a story about cloth-makers to do.

I had a push and pull with this book about it being categorized as YA.It was at once a story about a young woman in a man’s world, struggling to know the significance of her very name (classic YA “who am I” theme) while also a story of woman in need of saving her child and discovering the emotional bonds of marriage (the first time I ever saw that in YA and never expecting to).

I have a personal theory, which I could probably never prove, that is there are just as many adults reading YA books as there are young adults (14-20 let’s say). And, I’m impressed at the way this book might reach both audiences. If I were still in Education, I’d want this book on a reading list. If I were in a book club, I’d also recommend this book.

I picked it up not only because I’m always trying to study how this particular editor works, (I really like Arthur A. Levine Books) but also because it won the Morris Award, given annually to a debut YA author for outstanding work and promising voice. I’m just beginning to explore this list of award-winners because it’s only been around since 2009. A Curse Dark as Gold was the first recipient of the award.

Character Worksheet – Chart

So a while back I talked about doing the thing I always poo-pooed: Work through a character worksheet. I only did it because doing the things that Cheryl Klein says (in terms of editing — probably in other areas of life too, but I don’t know her that way) make So. Much. Sense. Her talks are wonderful, and her book, Second Sight, has changed the way I approach and edit my writing. Buy it.

I’ve noodling around with a new book concept as I polish the current draft of my work-in-progress. And this time I’m going to start with character notes before I start drafting. So weird for me. But, I’m excited! Instead of paging through Cheryl’s book over and over, I created a small chart that I can tape in front of my writing notes. Or, it can also be pulled up as a word document.

Here it is if you’d like to use it in chart form. Now, if you haven’t read her book, don’t be dumb and try to use this chart without doing so. This is a mere skeleton to use when applying her ideas to your writing. And, each one of these boxes may take up to a few pages in your writing notebook. Click the image to open it in a separate window. Anyway, hope it helps!

If My Life Were a Book Cover (7)

Title: Hippie Van!

During our recent family trip to Seattle and Portland it became Eleanor’s (and consequently Magnolia’s and my) mission to shout HIPPIE VAN every time we saw one. There were a lot — something you don’t get much in Indianapolis, even when you live close to Broadripple. Counting up all the occurrences of hippie culture on the west coast reminded me that I like it better out there. You get used to living in Indianapolis and forget how the salty beaches, fresh produce, and hippie vans really perk and inspire you. I don’t know why I feel like I live a better life elsewhere because that can’t be true. Because here’s the evidence: I have a big girl job at tech start up, a library in my home in which I can write, a husband who is happy in his job for the first time ever, and a talented critique group that I love being a part of. Now if I could only buy liquor on Sunday!!

But, I want to be elsewhere about as much as when I was that 17-year old girl looking for colleges at least 1000 miles away. You can’t go home again? Or, maybe you can because I fall right into the old pattern of wanting to leave. I wonder if my girls think about Indiana. Maybe they will crave stability after having moved about 10 times before college. I wonder what it feels like to have life where you actually settle. And how can people actually want that? How can one life be enough? It’s like I’m cramming 10 lives into one because shit, I don’t want to miss out. Is this also part of what drives me to write? Creating new versions of people who make choices I won’t and live lives I can’t?

Well, this is becoming very Dear Diary, so I’m off to write fiction. Maybe I’ll include a hippie van.

Book Review: Please Ignore Vera Dietz

This was a terrific book.I’ve been wanting to read it for so long, but wasn’t sure if I was going to cry, so I saved for a time where I was ready to tear up and could be alone. I didn’t cry, but the book was definitely heart-wrenching, and worthy of the Printz award. I’m looking forward to reading the other nominees.

In my last book review, I mentioned how didn’t care for books about destiny. What drew me to this book was that Vera is all about not following what she perceives as hers. The broken love and friendship between Charlie and Vera was beautifully expressed–both terrible and wonderful and so much in between. It just all rang so true, how kids that grow up to one another find their differences and struggle against them.

The other element that I enjoyed was that Vera’s father had a voice in the book. The relationship between Vera and her father was as interesting and nearly as heart-breaking as one the between Vera and Charlie. It must be hard to pull off because I don’t think its done very often. Seems like YA authors are so busy trying to get the parents out of the way so that they can showcase the teen experience. But, I really love how much attention the father was given in this book.

I’m not a fan of ghosts in stories, so I tolerated this one. It’s just a preference thing. I think King did what she set out to do. And I admire her for it.

I was looking over my book reviews list and it definitely looks like it’s time to read some sci fi, fantasy, or middle grade. Maybe I’ll tackle the Wolves of Mercy Falls series.

*And, an off-topic note: I did a guest post over at Compendium. I’m kind of proud of it. It applies to all writers, and talks about satisfying readers, a notion I first heard of from Peter Jacobi, which changed me. And changed my writing.

Book Review: The Big Crunch

Pete Hautman is one of my favorite writers. He won my heart with GODLESS, fed my curiosity with HOW TO STEAL A CAR, and satisfied me once again with THE BIG CRUNCH.

I generally dislike books about destiny. I wasn’t even a big fan of Slumdog Millionaire. Partly this is because I don’t believe in destiny. I believe in decisions. And when a book is about destiny, a character cannot make meaningful decisions. Why would you write a book where a character isn’t responsible for his or her outcomes? Where is the courage and hope in that?

So, what I like about THE BIG CRUNCH is that it so sciency! I’m not even a lover of science, but I’m married to someone who is. And what I learned by watching his love of science is that its truly a wonder to behold. Pete Hautman gets this. I wish he could be friends with my husband. Hautman goes so far as to separate what Wes and June feel for one another (both so closely intertwined they together are the main character) are feelings in their hearts, a place separate from the brain that controls decisions. A feeling could be a thing that remains forever: it’s the closest Hautman will get to brushing against destiny. Because after all, our brains can make all kinds of strange decisions about that feeling in our hearts. And for me, I happily brushed against this notion. It captured the feeling of being in love while acknowledging the reason people also have. The flap jacket describes the book thus: “June and Wes do not ‘meet cute.’ They do not fall in love at first sight. They do not swoon with scorching desire. They do not believe that they re instant soul mates destined to be together forever.” But it is a love story. One of my favorites so far. Because how do you navigate knowing what decision is best when your heart feels a consistent love? This is hard enough for an adult to screw with.

And while I’m talking about adults, I want to add that Hautman does a particularly good job of keeping teens young. So often teens in books seem like adults–they have the confidence, bodies, and wit of an adult with the body language and attitude of a teen. Like in movies and TV they cast the twenty-two year old as a sixteen year old. You know what I mean. It’s like people write their books that way too! When was the last time you saw a teen with braces? Mikey from The Goonies did. Why? Cause he was actually a teenager (14) when the movie was filmed. When I read Hautman’s books, I feel like I’m genuinely in a teenager’s life. I wish that wasn’t quite so rare. Yet, I still get to think about the big issues. Young adult literature as a category shouldn’t be a reading level. Young adult books are books from a teen perspective.